Sunday, April 13, 2008

Heaven or the Highway Out of Town

I had a fairly surreal experience a couple of years ago. The surreality of it is made all the more impressive by the fact that it occurred on the same night, in the same place as the official only rock concert I’ve ever attended and at one point turned around to see a monk in the crowd. And it was a real monk, not like that time I saw Local H and Scott and Brian came on stage dressed as ninjas (Brian St. Clair, for the record, made a lousy ninja, what with the track pants he was wearing that had white stripes on the sides).

Anyway, I was out at school and I found out that Better than Ezra was doing a show in Quincy, IL. Now, Quincy was, um, at least an hour/hour and a half away from Macomb, so it was kind of a haul, but there’s really not that much to do on the weekends when you attend Western Illinois University and aren’t seeking a Bachelor’s in Alcohol Poisoning, so my buddy and I hopped in the car and toddled on down to see BTE.

Now, for those who don’t know, Better than Ezra popped on to the music scene back in 1995 with an album called Deluxe that remains one of my all-time favorites. They also made what I’m assuming was a deliberate play for the late-night comedy circuit by getting their first hit with a song called “Good” (Topping the charts, “Good,” by Better than Ezra. Coming in second, “Okay,” by Ezra. The jokes just write themselves!). Then, as far as I could tell, they disappeared for a decade. What they really did was write a bunch of pop stuff that I heard but never recognized as being by BTE.

I was surprised when they released Before the Robots, which had more rock than their post-Deluxe work but was still fairly pop-y. Still, it was good stuff and they went on tour to support it, playing such arenas as the field house at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois.

Now, I’m not entirely sure where the gym of a Catholic university in a town no one outside of the Illinois/Iowa/Missouri “tri-state” area fits on the spectrum of venues, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere closer to “biker bar where they throw things at you” than the United Center. But I guess you have to play somewhere when you’re tooling down the Mississippi and aren’t in St. Louis or New Orleans. And there were a lot of people (including at least one monk) at the show, so it was a good thing.

Anyway, there were two opening acts. I’m guessing the first one was a collection of local high schoolers who won some sort of competition (I say that because I once went to a show where the first of two opening acts was announced as such and the BTE guys were pretty similar). The second was some guy I’d never heard of. I simply know him as Glen/Michael, the Sensitive Guitar Guy.

See, I thought his name was Glen. Then I found out his name was Michael. I didn’t actually care to figure out his last name and it amused the hell out of me to call him Glen/Michael, so that’s who he is. And if you’re reading this and you figure out who Glen/Michael is and get offended that I don’t care about him or his music, don’t call me to tell me about it. I’ll call you.

“Sensitive Guitar Guy,” meanwhile, is a pejorative term in my personal lexicon. We all know a sensitive guitar guy. He’s the doe-eyed fellow who takes his acoustic guitar down to the local coffee shop/quad and strums away, singing about how painful the world is and how he once loved a girl but she left him but it’s okay and he understands. Also, he may or may not sing some songs about a girl who is very lonely and feels unloved and unloveable but he understands her and he can see her real beauty even if no one else can and she falls in love with him because he’s so genuine and he really understands her and she can help him with his pain.

In reality, the Sensitive Guitar Guy has one and only one goal: to get in to that girl’s pants.

I hate that guy. And not just because I’m jealous. I tried really hard to compete with my Sensitive Banjo Guy schtick, but that only ever started a hoedown (and without the fun variety of ho...). Still, whatever it is that the Sensitive Guitar Guy does, it seems precisely calculated to seem really, really genuine and override the circuits in your average high school/college female and replace, “Hey, this guy’s kind of creepy,” with, “Aww, he’s so genuine.” (Seriously, it’s weird. I once knew a girl who just was not a fan of men or dating. She was an evangelical Christian, so she wasn’t a radical feminist or anything, as that’s not allowed, but still, she wasn’t exactly girly by most definitions. Then one day I heard her coo, “Aww, he’s so genuine,” in response to something involving Christian Sensitive Guitar Guy Bebo Norman and I realized I’d screwed up somewhere by being tone-deaf and lacking a propensity for corduroys and vintage t-shirts from thrift stores.) Now, this is always an interesting issue for me. I tend to be genuine, but in that I actually say what’s on my mind, which apparently doesn’t get, “Aww, he’s so genuine,” cred. Actual genuineness is apparently not attractive.

But I digress.

Either way, I was being subjected to the music of Glen/Michael the Sensitive Guitar Guy when either I or my buddy noticed something baffling. See, we were standing in a gym. The band was on a stage on one side and on the other side the stands were available for seating/balcony space. It was kind of a two-tiered setup. The lower tier was pushed back in to the wall so it created a sort of ten foot balcony thing. At the front of the balcony stood an incredibly attractive blonde girl with her eyes closed, head tilted back, and arms spread wide.* She was having her own little worship service in the presence of, well, someone who wasn’t exactly doing a praise and worship concert.

It confused and slightly saddened me at the time. I mean, you’re only supposed to assume the worship position when actually worshipping, right? The whole thing reeked of false idols and all that other stuff my good churchy sensibilities warned me to avoid.

Then, in the last year, I learned something. Last year I saw the Saw Doctors on St. Patrick’s Day. Getting to see the world’s greatest Irish rock band (take that, U2!) on the official most over-bastardized Irish holiday was friggin’ awesome. In the fall I ended up having an interlude where I saw Local H twice, bookending a Saturday night when Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers showed up to play the best concert I’ve ever seen. Somewhere in that period of eight months or so I think I began to understand why someone would adopt the pose of worship while at a concert.**

There is an energy that flows through a concert, especially of the type that I prefer to attend. I’m not a big fan of most mainstream bands. This doesn’t make me a big indie or prog-rock guy or anything like that. The Saw Doctors are basically a bar band that got lucky, Roger Clyne is often compared to Bruce Springsteen, and Local H was supposed to be the new Nirvana until the world moved on from grunge to, um, that rap-rock crap that captured the national zeitgeist with the advent of Fred Durst and his many horrid, horrid clones. Also, Nirvana sucked. Local H is way better. For one thing, Scott Lucas has managed to change his music over the last twelve years or so, something I don’t think Cobain could have done. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, the bands I like tend to be the sort that have cult followings of people that know all the words to all the songs, from the radio hits to the b-sides. They tend to be people who get excited, show up early, and jump around like idiots. The venues, too, tend to be smaller and not have too many chairs so everyone is pressed together in one big, happy, possibly smelly, probably drunk mob.

There’s an energy in that type of crowd. It flows over everyone and feeds off of itself. The band, too, tends to feed off of it as well. It’s the same energy I used to feel in the middle of one of those worship concerts at church.

Moreover, I’ve learned that if there’s a particular band that resonates, I want to respond to it. On some level, I believe that since I was trained at church to respond to a sudden flow of music-related emotion and understanding with upraised hands, I’ll tend to want to respond in that way no matter what I’m experiencing. Perhaps, too, there’s a fairly limited way to respond visibly in a corporate setting, so we all tend to respond in similar ways and that’s what I saw that night at the Better than Ezra show and what I’m doing when I find myself doing the same thing to the Peacemaker’s “Leave an Open Door.”

Anyway, I’m sure that at least one or two people have noticed an absence on my part for the last couple weeks. I’ve had a few half-formed posts that I never liked and were basically founded on angry rants I may yet revisit. On a meta level, however, I lost my job on the 28th, so I’ve been pretty busy trying to get re-employed and make a few other things happen. I came to an interesting realization last week, or, at least, one that was interesting to me.

As such, I’m going to try to get back in the swing of things here, because I really haven’t been writing at all and this is a good excuse. My first bunches of posts are going to be a change of gears and pretty self-indulgent, but hopefully in a way that’s interesting to a wider audience. This is an intro of sorts, as I’ve realized I’m at the end of one era of my life and stepping off in to another, a movement that is best preceded by a moment to say, “Seyla,” and pause for consideration.

Since I’ve been thinking about the power of music of late, “joining” me will be guest commentator Roger Clyne of his eponymous Peacemakers and the late, lamented Refreshments. His tendency towards lyrics containing simple, direct wisdom has been the baseline for many of my musings of late. I like the idea of giving credit where credit is due and, hopefully, sharing a fantastic artist with others.

So, hey, go to the Peacemaker’s website and order the catalogue so you can follow along. I’ll be here when you get back…

*If you, girl from the balcony, happen to be reading this and take umbrage at my casual dismissal of Glen/Michael, I’ll let you call me. I can even pretend to care about him long enough to let you in on the goodness of music that doesn’t suck. We can start slow, with some Matt Nathanson or Katie Todd, but I’m sure you’ll see the light of Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, The Saw Doctors, Idlewild, and Local H soon enough...

**Still don’t get it for Glen/Michael, though. But, hey, whatever floats your boat...


Fiat Lex said...

Woo hoo! Self-indulgent Geds might descend temporarily towards my unlofty end of the blogging barrel! I doubt you'll get as far as day-at-work synopses and dream logs, but what the hell.

About the worship service / rock conert thing, right on. Very much so. The first rock concert I ever attended was Marilyn Manson, not long after I deconverted, and that was practically the first thing I noticed. (Partly because I wasn't wearing my glasses and couldn't see for shit. Made the subtle crowd energy easier to pay attention to.) And I was like, "wait a minute. When we're having a Pentecostal worship service and everybody's trying to sing together 'in the Spirit', on a good day we might get a small fraction of this amount of group energy."

Human social groups need ritual. It ain't that ritual is nice to have, or really a good idea--on some fundamental level, if you don't have some kind of group participation ritual there IS no group. Just a bunch of individuals with a stupid mission statement posted over their desk. Meetings are a very low-energy type of ritual, rock concerts a relatively high-energy type. Combat is I think the upper limit.

And the higher energy level the ritual is able to summon, the stronger is the resulting bond for the group. Prime example are the bonds formed between people who fight on the same side in combat, almost universally acknowledged to be the strongest bonds that exist between people.

I think it was Marcel Mauss who wrote that monograph about group ritual; it's been awhile since I read it but I recall the two most important points from talking about it with my dad. If my memory is wrong on this, please, correct me!
One, a ritual establishes communication between the sacred and the profane through the destruction of something (the sacrifice).
Two, the more potent the sacrifice, the more powerful the communication--which leads Mauss to conclude that the most powerful ritual experience for a group is one which involves the death of one of its members. Hence combat's special status.

In relatively mild rituals like church services and rock concerts the sacrifice is something intangible. The participants give up a part of themselves, give a tacit and unspoken agreement that they are stepping away from their everyday selves and becoming a congregant or an audience member. And even that has a huge effect. One gives up (temporarily) one's identity, but in return one receives something great; the shared energy and passion of the group.

The sensitive guy thing is simple enough. Those guys are just wolves in sheeps' clothing. The sheep women think they're other sheep and feel safe and go ga-ga for them because they think "finally! a guy who cares more about my feelings than getting in my pants and thus will be nice to have around once I finally let him in my pants!" And the wolf women think "finally! a guy whose spirit is already broken so I can twist and torture him any way I want without having to work too hard!"

Either way, eeeeew.

Geds said...

I was having a conversation with a friend last week and the topic of guys wearing pink came up. She informed me that pink is a neutral color and goes with anything, so the whole guys in pink thing was a specific attempt by the fashion industry to make guys match with their dates no matter what she wore. I'm not a big fan of the idea of wearing pink in the first place and I said I wouldn't be changing my ways, as I'm not a fan of being a big accessory. She said, "And you wonder why you're single..."

Anyway, the ritual thing is an interesting concept. I've been told by people who know more than I do and probably make PBS specials that mammals spend a great deal of time engaging in what's called social grooming. We basically see it in apes when they're picking each others nits off all day on those nature specials. It works well in a small society, but humans don't exactly have the luxury of that kind of time.

So language was postulated as a response to the paradoxical needs for social grooming and time in a much larger society. I don't think it went quite this far, but it's easy to postulate from that the idea of the creation of shared ritual to basically nitro charge that social grooming. Thereby, whether you're at the local megachurch on Sunday morning or a rock concert on Saturday night, if you understand that the concert itself is, on a basic level, nothing but a big social grooming event designed to draw people who probably don't know each other together using a common language and activity, you can fit right in at both places.

The best part, though, is when you don't consider yourself part of a certain group, but are at least conversant in its jargon. You can fit right in without too much difficulty. I've been known to use that to my advantage (but you'd know that...).